Back in 1977, I was part of a commercial painting crew that remodeled the five-and-dime stores that once inhabited small-town America. While the work was mundane, the method was anything but. We would arrive Saturday afternoon just as the store closed, cover the long aisle-length counters and work non-stop until opening time on Monday morning, a period of 40 straight hours without sleep.
After one particular job, however, we found ourselves too exhausted to drive home so we decided to overnight in a motel. Finding no vacancies, we went to the nearest paint store and asked the lady behind the counter if she knew a place where we could crash. She responded that we could stay with her family which surprised us completely. Here we were, a group of shaggy strangers being welcomed into the home of a solid American citizen. But our weariness won out so off we went to her tidy ranch house. Upon meeting her husband, part of the mystery of her kindness was explained. He was wheelchair bound; suffering from a degenerative disease that he knew would eventually kill him. Since his infirmity, most of his friends had deserted him, a shock which had taught him the finer points of generosity.
After a shower and some blessed hours of sleep, we joined the family for dinner and I’ll never forget the meal we were served. It consisted of Kraft’s macaroni and cheese, Wonder Bread and “cherry” Kool-Aid. Now, normally, I don’t eat food like this. Wonder Bread has all the nutrients sucked out of it before being baked into some tasteless white glop. Kool-Aid is basically sugar mixed with red dye #2 and the cheese in the macaroni resembles some odd fluorescent powder. In all, this meal was un-natural, un-organic, and unhealthy.
I ate every bite.
I did so because the food was offered to us with the purest of love and to refuse it would have been rudeness bordering on blasphemy. Thirty year later, I am still thankful for this particular meal.
Over the recent years, I have joined Buddhist monks and nuns on various pilgrimages around the nation. I noticed that they offered prayers of thanks for meals ranging from a bowl of brown rice to a plate of greasy fried chicken. They sometimes chided their fellow American pilgrims who rejected a meal because of what is euphemistically referred to as “food issues. Unfortunately, billions of people in other parts of the world also suffer from “food issues”. If they don’t find something to eat, they and their children starve to death. To me, that’s the ultimate “food issue”.
In retrospect, I try to eat a balanced and healthy diet. But I also express gratitude for the fact that I am eating and don’t suffer either from physical want or the fear of want. There but for the grace of God go I in the shoes of those who are hungry. They don’t have the luxury of choice. I do.
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